The Sixth Form Purvis Society was delighted to welcome Mr Chris Wright to deliver the first of this term’s lectures on Thursday 21st January.  Mr Wright is a professional artist who has had a varied career including a degree in Fine Arts, a stint working at the National Gallery, a second degree and then, most relevant to this presentation, a lengthy stretch working for the Born Free Foundation after various volunteer

"My Turf" by Chris Wright
“My Turf” by Chris Wright

assignments all over the world, all with the theme ‘conservation’ hovering in the background.  “Wildlife Conservation; Changing Hearts and Challenging Minds” was his provocative title, and the main theme of his fascinating talk was that animals belong in the wild and that, thus far, conservation has not really been the greatest of successes.

Sir David Attenborough, who distanced himself for so many years from this debate (preferring instead to present the bewildering variety of life on our planet), has now come on side by bluntly stating that there are “simply too many people”. The point, stated Mr Wright, is that people tend to listen to Sir David; he has an effective platform.  But, he went on, are we sure there really is a problem?  He answered his own question by stating that biodiversity is down by 25% in the last 35 years.  10,000 species become extinct each year, possibly 50,000 in 2014, and even though it is estimated there are 100 million species on the Earth, this extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural rate and unacceptable.

Poverty is a huge driver of extinctions, Mr Wright assured us, but he had also admitted that some work he carried out in Nigeria, looking at the

Photo credit: M. Daines
Photo credit: M. Daines

sustainability of bush-meat hunting, had led him to change some of his preconceptions, realising that, as is so often the case, the reality is infinitely more complex than it at first may seem.

But, does extinction matter? Is your life significantly affected because there are no dodos?  It is believed that, in 2009, humanity used 40% more resources than nature can regenerate in the same time period.  We should care, we were assured, because our lives depend on it and, anyway wildlife is simply too beautiful to lose.

Having passionately argued his case (and carried his audience along with him) he asked, “So, how do we do it?” “Isn’t it all too confusing and messy?”  The answer seems to be “Yes… and No”.  One cynical view might be, “If you want to conserve a species, simply decide to eat it, then it will be managed” (Ted Nugent).

Showing a picture of a crocodile farm, and then one of a crocodile abattoir, he suggested that, unpleasant though the conditions were, this enterprise may be responsible for a reduction of the pressure on the wild populations. If there is no premium on wild meat then farmed is fine and there is a suitable market.  However, a picture of a Chinese tiger farm (illegal, of course) told a very different story.  The unproven medicinal benefits of tiger products are big business in China and 8,000 of these beasts are kept in this one installation alone.  Tigers carry enormous kudos and products as bizarre as tiger-bone wine are available.  There is a tourist element in this too, of course, but the reality is that large numbers of the animals are in a desperate state; it doesn’t matter, the products are the same.

Mr Wright’s passion for his subject was obvious. “The only place to see wild animals is in the wild”, he assured us; if you can’t go there, then too

"Sumatran Sultan by Chris Wright
“Sumatran Sultan by Chris Wright

bad.  “Suck it up!”  Are zoos educational?  If you want education, he told us, read.  Zoos pride themselves on their conservation record and indeed some do some good work, but over 90% of endangered species are not in zoo collections.  The average time spent in front of a cage by visitors to these collections is three seconds.

Of course, habitat destruction is responsible for a lot of the problems. So, what is the environment worth?  Another cynical view, the view of the economists is, “If it pays, it stays”.  “We use Nature because she is valuable.  We lose Nature because she is free” (Pavan Sukhudev).

Returning to tigers (Mr Wright had told us of a tiger he had helped to rescue from a cage under a shop counter a few years ago), he informed us that there were more tigers in captivity in Texas, as pets, than there are in the wild.

Discussion of this emotive issue swirled around the dinner table for over an hour after the talk and pupils were still debating some of the issues in lessons the next day. Mr Wright, stepping in to the Purvis programme at short notice, certainly did a splendid job and we are immensely grateful.

Dr Christopher Mann
Head of Biology